OCEAN CITY— A rare
sighting of what has been called the world’s most elusive species of whale
turned into a failed rescue attempt last Saturday in the Assawoman Bay, as
divers tried in vain to save an 11-foot, 1,000-pound Gervais’ Beaked Whale that
had strayed far from its natural habitat.
At approximately 12:30
p.m. last Saturday, a mammal that appeared to be “a dolphin on steroids” was
reported to be in distress and had beached itself on a sand spit 100 yards
offshore in the Assawoman Bay near Old Landing Road in uptown Ocean City.
Natural Resource Police,
the National Aquarium Marine Animal Rescue Program volunteers, the US Coast
Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department
of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Ocean City Department of Public Works were
called to the scene to try to save what they later realized was a mammal that
had strayed very far from home.
“When we got up close
and saw the whale, we were absolutely mystified because none of us knew what it
was. I’ve been doing this for 30 years,
and I’d never seen an animal like that,” said Dave Quilter, a local charter
boat captain and lead diver for the National Aquarium Marine Animal wet/dry
rescue team. “We had our book of all different types of whales and aquatic
creatures with us, and it wasn’t in our books, so we knew we had something
special on our hands.”
When rescuers finally
freed the whale from the sandbar around 5:30 p.m., the whale then swam up a canal
heading towards a residential neighborhood before getting stuck underneath a
dock, and was visibly injured and was displaying what scientists confirmed to
be “unusual and erratic behavior.
City Manager Dennis
Dare, who had been called to the scene, said that seeing the whale on the
sandbar was one of the most unusual things he’s ever seen.
“It had beached itself
and since it was in the sun for so long, its black skin was peeling off of its
body like paint off a fire truck,” said Dare. “We were all out there trying to
save this thing; we all had whale blood all over us.”
To say that the whale
sighting, in itself, was a rarity is quite frankly a large understatement as
beaked whales were never recorded to even be seen by human eyes until 1998, and
this particular species of beaked whale was last reported seen off the Spanish
island of Lanzanote (northern most of the Canary Islands) in 2008. There are 21
different species of beaked whales, but scientists allegedly only have actively
been able to study merely a handful of those species. As per a website
dedicated to the education on and preservation of beaked whales, prior to the
2008 sighting, several beaked whales had been sighted in 2005 in New Zealand,
but none since.
As darkness approached
on Saturday, Quilter said that rescuers decided to remove the whale from the
water, and transported it to the city’s Public Works Department on a tow truck,
while scientists from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. sped to the resort to
assess the situation.
Aquarium’s veterinary staff determined that euthanizing the animal was its best
option as it was in bad shape,” said Quilter, “but this animal is so rare and
special that the scientists from the Smithsonian will be able to learn
unbelievable things about these creatures that haven’t been found yet because
they are hardly ever seen by humans.”
Gervais’ Beaked Whales
normally prefer deep and rather warm waters of the central or northern Atlantic
Ocean and are usually found north of the equator. They are known to have an
extraordinary ability to dive tremendous depths (over 1,000 fathoms or 1,900
meters) for extensive periods of time (up to 85 minutes).
In addition, the beaked
whale is believed to be the only marine mammal whose evolution is believed to
be shaped by a secondary sex trait (the male’s teeth which seemingly erupt from
the lower jaw), which in comparison is similar to secondary sex trait of
antlers on the male deer, for instance.
Although the sex of the
Gervais’ whale that found its way to the Assawoman Bay isn’t known for sure
yet, based on its size, some believe that it is either a male or a juvenile
female, since the females of the species are generally on the larger end of the
11-17-foot spectrum that Gervais’ Beaked Whales traditionally grow to.
Reportedly, a group of
golfers from New Jersey were playing a round Saturday morning and had helped
what is presumed to be the same beaked whale off a sand bar at Lighthouse Sound
in Bishopville. It is believed that the whale then swam north before beaching
itself on the sand bar just off Old Landing Road.
This is the third
incident involving a whale in the area in the last two months, as a 10-ton,
27-foot humpback whale had washed ashore in Ocean City on St. Patrick’s Day
weekend, and a mere week later, a 50-ton, 61-foot humpback whale washed onto
the beach in Fenwick Island, Del.
Scientists say they
can’t be sure why these whales are finding their way to the area, but in the
case of the beaked whale, whose deep water habitat relies heavily on its own
inner sonar capabilities, some hint that it could have been thrown off by
interaction with military submarine exercises using active sonar or the
improbable possibility of other related human interaction.
Regardless, the whale’s
carcass is currently undergoing tests at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and
is already being considered as a rare find for the marine scientific community.
“The folks from the
Smithsonian were extremely excited about this opportunity because these whales
are just so rare,” said Public Works Deputy Director Dick Malone.
Quilter said that the
interaction with such a rare creature will most certainly go down as top of his
list of so-called fish stories and whale tales.
“I’ve done a lot of
things in the water and interacted with a lot of different species, but that
was most definitely the most unique encounter I’ve ever had,” said Quilter. “It
was a once in a lifetime experience.”